The Gourmet Q + A: John Powell

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Q. But doesn’t it seem to you that instead of having to respond to all of these crises, maybe the problem has more to do with these bigger policies of the Western world?

A. There are enough reforms to go around for all countries, developed and developing alike, to play their part.

Q. What would you have the developing countries do to play their part? Just better governance and more transparency?

A. For example, you would expect agricultural reform, by a WTO consensus, to lead to freer agricultural trade. This wouldn’t only deal with imports, it would deal with exports, and it would have clear implications for price controls and for subsidies. A more liberal trade regime, particularly in agricultural products, is likely to be in everybody’s best interest.

Q. I heard you speak at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines in October. I don’t know if you were there when Roberto Rodrigues, former Agricultural Minister of Brazil, gave a talk about the benefits of sugar ethanol, but he was very optimistic about the potential of biofuels for southern economies, and the sort of re-organization of geopolitics based on southern nations getting rich from biofuels. What do you think about that prospect?

A. To go back to an earlier point that we discussed, which is why we’re agnostic but neutral on the issue of biofuels: Essentially, biofuels come from biomass, and there is no necessary reason why a different form of biomass can’t be used and…

Q. Other than a food crop?

A. Yeah—jatropha [a plant native to tropical areas whose seeds can be used to make biodiesel] being a case in point. So advances in the area of alternative fuel sources could potentially have very positive effects in a whole range of areas.

Q. During your speech, you talked about this perfect storm approaching the food aid community, which is of course playing out right now. Do you see an end to it? How do you feel looking forward?    

A. The storm is upon us a little more quickly than we had anticipated. The rate of increase, the acceleration, has been more than I think anybody had anticipated. For WFP, it’s incredibly important to be able to do two things at the same time. The first is to deal quickly with the urgent needs of the present, if you like, the caseload of internationally vulnerable people, the folk in Afghanistan, the folk in Darfur, the folk in Chad. We need simultaneously, of course, to find ways to help developing countries and support them as we deal with the new face of hunger.

So that’s the immediate problem for today. We need to address both of those in a way that helps to solve the problem for tomorrow. Part of it is giving governments in developing countries the policy space to think through what are the best set of policy options for them, and which they are unlikely to have if they are dealing with food riots. It’s difficult to have this kind of conversation. The temptation therefore is to be pre-empted or pushed into urgent action rather than necessarily the best action, and that could well make the situations worse, which is our concern about the increasing number of countries which are imposing export bans and price controls.

Similarly, unless the issue of subsidies is dealt with equally intelligently, this can lead to a situation where it places an impossible financial burden on the government budgets. So these are the areas where governments in developing countries may need particular help. So we need to deal with this issue simultaneously as the world deals with longer-term issues, about strengthening science and technology input to be able to increase productivity, and a sharp increase in investment in the agricultural sector, and the kind of broad-based policy reforms—including a successful early closure to the WTO round of trade negotiations, particularly those covering agriculture—so that we can have a set of policies best-suited to trigger the supply response to increase agricultural production and to get the balance right between that and protecting the health and the well-being of the planet in the longer run. That’s why you can’t do this over a weekend, between the Saturday-afternoon riot and the Monday-morning policy announcement.

Q. It seems like it would be very grim work, what you’re doing right now. Do you feel like you can see any light at the end of the tunnel?

A. The good news is that this issue is one that affects all countries, albeit somewhat differently. So the issue of hunger and food prices is very high on the international agenda. It will be on the agenda for the G-8; it will be on the agenda for the Tokyo International Conference for African Development in Japan, and so on. And that offers it a profile which simply demands attention, and these are the folk best suited to lead the world through the issues. So I’m in fact quite optimistic, given the prominent profile of the issue, and the engagement of the world’s leaders, across Africa, across Asia, and inclusive of the G-8. We, the world, have needed to deal with these issues before, and when we’ve come together, we have done so.

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